Even Faster Web Sites

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Even Faster Web Sites

Slow Web page loading can discourage visitors to a site more than any other problem, regardless of how attractive or feature-rich the given site might be. Consequently, many Web developers hope to achieve faster response times using AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML), since only portion(s) of an AJAX page need to be reloaded. But for many rich Internet applications (RIAs), such potential performance gains can be lost as a result of non-optimized JavaScript, graphics, and CSS files. Steve Souders — a Web performance expert previously at Yahoo and now with Google — addresses these topics in his second book, Even Faster Web Sites: Performance Best Practices for Web Developers.

The book was published by O'Reilly Media on 18 June 2009, under the ISBN 978-0596522308. The publisher makes available a Web page, where visitors can purchase the print and electronic versions of the book (as well as a bundle of the two), read the book online as part of the Safari library service, and check the reported errata — comprising those confirmed by the author (of which there are currently two) and any unconfirmed errors (all six of which are valid, though the fifth one may be a coincidence). In a break with traditional practice among technical publishers nowadays, there is no sample chapter available, as of this writing.

In many ways, this second book is similar to Steve's previous one, High Performance Web Sites: It presents methods of enhancing the performance of websites, with a focus on client-side factors. It is fairly slender (this one is 254 pages), relative to most programming books nowadays, and the material is organized into 14 chapters. However, unlike its predecessor, Even Faster Web Sites emphasizes generally more advanced topics, such as script splitting, coupling, blocking, and chunking (which to non-developers may sound like a list of the more nefarious techniques in professional hockey). This second book also has employed a team approach to authorship, such that six of the chapters are written by contributing authors. In his preface, Steve notes that the 14 chapters are grouped into three broad areas: JavaScript performance (Chapters 1-7), network performance (Chapters 8-12), and browser performance (Chapters 13-14). The book concludes with an appendix in which he presents his favorite tools for performance analysis, organized into four types of applications: packet sniffers, Web development tools, performance analyzers, and some miscellaneous applications.

In the first chapter, "Understanding Ajax Performance", guest author Douglas Crockford briefly describe some of the key trade-offs and principles of optimizing applications, and how JavaScript now plays a pivotal role in that equation — as websites nowadays are designed to operate increasingly like desktop programs. On pages 2 and 3, he uses some figures to illustrate fixed versus variable overhead, and the dangers of attempting to optimize the wrong portions of one's code. By the way, the so-called "axes" are not axes, or even Cartesian grid lines, but simply levels. Aside from its choppy narrative style and a pointless religious reference in the first paragraph, the material serves as a thought-provoking springboard for what follows. Chapter 2, titled "Creating Responsive Web Applications", was written by Ben Galbraith and Dion Almaer, who discuss response times, user perception of them, techniques for measuring latency, browser threads, Web Workers, Google Gears, timers, and memory issues. The material is neatly explained, although Figure 2-2 is quite confusing; moreover, both of the figures on that page should not have been made Mac- and Firefox-specific.

In the subsequent four chapters, Steve dives into the critical topic of how to optimize the performance of JavaScript-heavy pages through better script content and organization — specifically, how and when to split up large scripts into smaller ones, how to load scripts without blocking one another or breaking dependencies within the code, and how to best in-line scripts, when called for. Each of the four chapters follows an effective methodology: The first author delineates a particular performance mistake made by even some of the most popular websites, with the statistics to back it up. He presents one or more solutions, including any relevant tools, again with waterfall charts illustrating how well the solutions work. Lastly, he explains any browser-specific issues, oftentimes with a handy chart showing which possible method would likely be optimal for the reader's given situation, such as expected browser choices in the site's target audience. When there are potential pitfalls, Steve points them out, with helpful workarounds. He generally provides enough example source code to allow any experienced developer to implement the proposed solutions. Unfortunately, the example code does not appear to be available for download from O'Reilly's website.

The discussion of JavaScript optimization is capped off by the seventh chapter, written by Nicholas C. Zakas, who explains variable scope within JavaScript code, the advantages of choosing local variables as much as possible, scope chain augmentation, the performance ramifications of the four major data types (literal values, variables, arrays, and objects), optimizing flow control statements, and string concatenation. He outlines what sorts of problems can cause the user's Web browser to freeze up, and the differing responses she would see depending upon her chosen browser. Nicholas concludes his chapter by explaining how to utilize timer code to force long-running scripts to yield, in order to avoid these problems. By the way, in Figures 7-2 and 7-3, the data point symbols need to be enlarged so as to be distinguishable; as it is, they are quite difficult to read. More importantly, on page 93, the sentence beginning "This makes array lookup ideal..." is either misworded or mistaken, since array lookup cannot be used for testing inclusion in ranges.

With the eighth chapter, the book shifts gears to focus on network considerations — namely, how to improve the site visitor's experience by optimizing the number of bytes that must be pushed down the wire. In "Scaling with Comet", Dylan Schiemann introduces an emerging set of techniques that Steve Souders describes as "an architecture that goes beyond Ajax to provide high-volume, low-latency communication for real-time applications such as chat and document collaboration" — specifically, by reducing the server-side resources per connection. In Chapter 9, Tony Gentilcore discusses a rather involved problem with using gzip compression — one that negatively impacts at least 15% of Internet users. Even though videos, podcasts, and other audiovisual files consume a lot of the Internet's bandwidth, images are still far more common on websites, and this alone is reason enough for Chapter 10, in which Stoyan Stefanov and Nicole Sullivan explain how to reduce the size of image files without degrading visible quality. They compare the most popular image formats, and also explain alpha transparency and the use of sprites. The only clear improvement that could be made to their presentation is on page 157, where the phrase "named /favicon.ico that sits in the web root" should instead read something like "usually named favicon.ico", since a favicon can have any filename, and can be located anywhere in a site's directory structure.

The lead author returns in Chapter 11, in which he explains how to best divide resources among multiple domains (termed "sharding"). In the subsequent chapter, "Flushing the Document Early", Steve explores the approach of utilizing chunked encoding in order to begin rendering the Web page before its full contents have been downloaded to the browser. The third and final section of the book, devoted to Web browser performance, consists of two chapters, both of whose titles neatly summarize their contents: "Using Iframes Sparingly" and "Simplifying CSS Selectors". That last chapter contains some performance tips that even some of the most experienced CSS wizards may have never heard of before. As with most of the earlier chapters, the narrative tends to be stronger than the illustrations. For instance, Figure 14-5, a multiline chart, is quite misleading, because it appears to depict three values varying over time, when actually each of the ten x-axis coordinates represents a separate major website. A bar chart would obviously have been a much better choice.

Like any first edition of a technical book, this one contains a number of errata (aside from those mentioned earlier): In Figure 1-1, "iteration" is misspelled. On page 23, in the sentence beginning "Thus, if...", the term "was" should instead read "were". In Figures 7-1 and 7-4, the "Global object" box should not contain "num2". On page 95, in the phrase "the terminal condition evaluates to true", that instead should read "false". On page 147, in the sentence beginning "However, the same icon...", the "was" should instead read "were". On page 214, "Web-Pagetest. AOL" should instead read "Web-Pagetest, then AOL", because the first sentence is one long absolute phrase (i.e., lacking a finite noun and verb).

All of these defects can be easily corrected in future printings. What will probably need to wait for a second edition, are improvements to the figures that are in need of replacement or clarification. What the publisher can rectify immediately — should the author and O'Reilly choose to do so — would be to make all of the example source code available for download.

Even though this book is decidedly longer than High Performance Web Sites, and has many more contributing authors, it does not appear to contain as much actionable information as his predecessor — at least for small- to medium-sized websites, which probably make up the majority of all sites on the Web. Even though such methodologies as Comet, Doloto, and Web Workers appear impressive, one has to wonder just how many real-world websites can justify the development and maintenance costs of implementing them, and whether their overhead could easily outweigh any possible benefits. Naturally, these are the sorts of questions that are best answered through equally hard-nosed experimentation — as exemplified by Steve Souders's admirable emphasis upon proving what techniques really work.

Fortunately, none of this detracts from the application development and optimization knowledge presented in the book. With its no-nonsense analysis of Internet performance hurdles, and balanced recommendations of the most promising solutions, Even Faster Web Sites truly delivers on its title's promise to help Web developers wring even more speed out of their websites.

Copyright © 2009 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.
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